Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee who dazzled the world with his sprinting in the 2012 Olympics, was sentenced to five years in prison by a South African judge on Tuesday morning, bringing to a close a trial that has captivated world audiences in a way unseen since the trial of O.J. Simpson. Under South African law, Pistorius will be eligible to apply for house arrest in 10 months.
Pistorius was convicted Sept. 12 of culpable homicide — the equivalent of manslaughter, under U.S. law — for killing his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day 2013 by shooting her through a bathroom door in his Pretoria home. The court acquitted him of murder. His defense rested on a claim that he thought an intruder, rather than Steenkamp, was in the bathroom.
The sentence, Judge Thokozile Masipa said, struck a “delicate balance” between mercy and the demands of justice, while delivering an “appropriate” message to the community.
“I am of the view that a non-custodial sentence would send the wrong message to the community, but a long sentence would not be appropriate because it would lack the elements of mercy,” said the judge, who stewarded the case under the twin burdens of international scrutiny and criticism of South Africa’s justice system.
The trial of Pistorius, known as “the Blade Runner” for the high-tech prosthetic legs that propelled him into the Olympics, was a battle of competing narratives, drawing on themes of disability, love, success and vulnerability.
To the prosecution, which produced a chilling portrayal of Pistorius, the athlete was a gun fanatic driven by ego and rage who killed Steenkamp in anger after an explosive argument.
The defense countered that assertion by portraying Pistorius as a man trapped by disability, who, in a moment of vulnerability and fear with his prosthetics removed, fatally shot Steenkamp after he mistook her for an intruder in the middle of the night.
One fact, however, was beyond dispute: Pistorius had intended to kill when he shot four bullets through a bathroom door, striking Steenkamp. Afterward, a distraught Pistorius tried to resuscitate her, but it was too late.
“The accused was very emotional,” Masipa said during a lengthy meditation on Pistorius’s guilt. “He suffers from trauma, even 18 months after the incident.”
Pistorius’s psychological trauma became a central player in the trial. The athlete, who was once full of braggadocio and bombast, openly sobbed and vomited in court, feeding a side debate over whether the emotion was genuine or part of an act to curry favor. To psychologists who viewed Pistorius, his emotion was real.
“At times, he became emotional and often cried,” one state-sponsored psychological evaluation of Pistorius found in July. “He became nauseous when discussing the events of 14 February 2013 and had to rush to the bathroom where he was seen to vomit.”
His posture on Tuesday morning offered a contrast to previous bouts of emotion. For an hour before the sentencing, he sat motionless, face devoid of visible affect. Only when the sentence came down, and he was led toward the cells, did a look of alarm come over his face, reporters present at the proceedings said.
Members of the Steenkamp family, who say the wounds inflicted by Reeva’s death have been both emotional and financial, allowed a faint smile.
Steenkamp “was young and full of life,” Masipa said. “She was a promising young woman who cared deeply for family and full of hope, someone who lived life to the full. … Nothing I say or do can reverse what happened on February 14th, and what it did to the family, but hopefully this will provide some sort of closure to the family, so they can move on with their lives.”